Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: The Scar, by China Miéville

Since China Miéville doesn't, I'll give you, potential reader, an outline view of what the world of Bas-Lag (the setting of The Scar and a couple other of Miéville's novels, including the more famous Perdido Street Station) is like.  It's a planet as large as this one, probably, but older, or, if it's not older, then it's suffered the rise, fall, and disappearance of so many more advanced civilizations and dread empires than ours has, that it is at least far denser with such things.  The current state of technological progress is dynamic (we get the feeling it is always such), and it is early machine age in feel (call it "steampunk," but that's too limiting a term here).  The civilized sphere consists of networked societies in a constant flux of discovery and rediscovery, infused with magic only to the extent where the author either needs a suitable kludge to expand technical capability beyond what petroleum and gearworks (or physics) can actually do, or wants to add even more dashes of color to the kaleidoscopic world. It's stuffed with an improbable diversity of intelligent species, man-like things of all sorts, living and undead and modified, along with flora and fauna of similarly mundane or exotic provenance, well beyond what any evolutionary social process could ever shovel into competing ecological niches.  And that's only within the limits of the charted world, which the characters in The Scar attempt to expand. 

But it's weirder than that.  The world of Bas-Lag may be flat too, a disk, where densified water is pulled up from weird extradimensional deeps, and presumably spills over the edges into whatever nebulous ether the whole thing floats in (showering the elephants, maybe), and we are gradually given clues that the whole thing is some kind of low-probability-of-existence place, a giant crap-trap in the drain plumbing of the Multiverse, where it collects peoples and artifacts of various sorts.  (I liked to imagine it in the same universe as Neal Stephenson's Anathem.)  It's a brutal effort for people to carve order out of a place like that, and they try.  Against all that, it's full of folks doing their best to get by in a raucous reality.

I can understand the impulse to just throw the reader right into that seething mix (in which the characters are only marginally better informed), and that's what Miéville does, but I wish that he had coughed up some kind of description resembling the above.  Because it's a better-developed universe than it first looks--interesting as hell once you get the feel for it--but for the first 150 pages, you can't tell that it's not just a big sloppy mess instead.  Nor could I tell for awhile if the writing style's deliberate, or if that too is meant to evoke the setting, which in this particular story is primarily a floating, seafaring city of lashed-together boats.  It's an ugly, clumsily-constructed place, and the language onomatopoeiacally follows: ramshackle, Jabber, rickety, slapdash.  The novel opens with prose so purple you could paint with it, and as things move forward there were a few language or scenery elements that affronted me enough to bookmark them, but if he's going to write in that way, then at least he picked the right world for it. 

(What I found less forgivable, is that in a book that doesn't shy away from dirty words, Miéville wasn't usually able to make his characters curse very well.  How fucking hard is that?)

And so it's a sea adventure, and a fantasy, and it's gladly full of all you need for that.  The plot moves right along, and the central characters, while not entirely loveable, are human enough, and imperiled enough, that they earn your concern.  Along with several other people important to the effort, Bellis Coldwine, a translator, is press-ganged to serve in an academic capacity on the boat city of Armada.  Even as an unwilling outsider, constantly plotting escape, she becomes caught up in the bizarre politics of the place, as they coalesce into a grand plan and a great chase.  Armada is an interesting place, and it makes exotic stops (an island of fearsome mosquito people, more compelling creatures than you'd think; a cosmic sinkhole, where with great chains and engines, they angle the depths for some forgotten behemoth), faces pitched naval battles, and gets as bawdy as you like.

Miéville appears to populate the book with character archetypes of his own design.  The city leaders and its champions wax a little larger than life, and even down at the level of the point-of-view characters, Bellis and her friend/antagonist evolve as pictures of growing luck and competence.  You wonder by what complicated path they'll manage escape (or otherwise steer events), but there's little doubt they will.  And I've got to say that this is where I finally found genius in the book, because (SPOILERS follow) these assumptions are dismantled only a little less quickly than they're built up.  Despite the fantastical elements, Occam's razor is paring away at the characters and plot all the time.  Story developments that you imagine are given to you as reader's privilege are dragged out and made public to the whole city.  People who lurk in the margins of events acquire no real power by the end, and the users concede none.  Were such a thing were possible in real life, a quest to drag an already tenuously functional city to some otherworldly power source is a stupid fucking idea, and it's gradually revealed as suchThe greatest of lovers are not of one mind.  The political agent is only acting toward political ends.  Miéville sneakily surprised me by letting his characters revert to people by the end, the people who in fact he said they were all along, and made it feel like a surprise.  And the book is better for that.


David Marlow said...

I'm interested in the picture painting aspect, or lack thereof. I don't read well, for whatever reason, but I think I might like this book. But then I might not if I can't see what's going on. For example, I'm about to wrap up The Left Hand Of Darkness. It's fine and all, but I feel like I have a good idea about the landscape. It helps especially lately that our temperatures over here have been topping out at the mid-teens. (Assuming you've read Left Hand. Presumptuous, I know.)

Also, I feel like I should say I wasn't a little worried about your absence. None of my business, obviously, but hoping all's well.

Keifus said...

This one is just a fantasy adventure, if you like that sort of thing. It's cluttered and involved, and sort of in the moment. The scenes it paints don't tend not to be expansive ones. If it's got a big theme, it's only that in the end, it declines to be "epic."

I liked LHoD, although it's been a long time since I read it. (I do remember the cold, bleak, and hunkered down-ness.) I recommended it to Dawn Coyote a while back, to read through a feminist lens. Wonder if she did.

I'm all right, in the scheme of things. But I appreciate your concern. Seriously, means a lot.